The American Spirit in Literature, - A Chronicle of Great Interpreters, Volume 34 in The - Chronicles Of America Series
by Bliss Perry
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Clear and bold and gay was Alexander Hamilton likewise; and his literary services to the Revolution are less likely to be underestimated than Thomas Paine's. They began with that boyish speech in "the Fields" of New York City in 1774 and with "The Farmer Refuted," a reply to Samuel Seabury's "Westchester Farmer." They were continued in extraordinary letters, written during Hamilton's military career, upon the defects of the Articles of Confederation and of the finances of the Confederation. Hamilton contributed but little to the actual structure of the new Constitution, but as a debater he fought magnificently and triumphantly for its adoption by the Convention of the State of New York in 1788. Together with Jay and Madison he defended the fundamental principles of the Federal Union in the remarkable series of papers known as the "Federalist." These eighty-five papers, appearing over the signature "Publius" in two New York newspapers between October, 1787, and April, 1788, owed their conception largely to Hamilton, who wrote more than half of them himself. In manner they are not unlike the substantial Whig literature of England, and in political theory they have little in common with the Revolutionary literature which we have been considering. The reasoning is close, the style vigorous but neither warmed by passion nor colored by the individual emotions of the author. The "Federalist" remains a classic example of the civic quality of our post-Revolutionary American political writing, broadly social in its outlook, well informed as to the past, confident—but not reckless—of the future. Many Americans still read it who would be shocked by Tom Paine and bored with Edmund Burke. It has none of the literary genius of either of those writers, but its formative influence upon successive generations of political thinking has been steadying and sound.

In fact, our citizen literature cannot be understood aright if one fails to observe that its effect has often turned, not upon mere verbal skill, but upon the weight of character behind the words. Thus the grave and reserved George Washington says of the Constitution of 1787: "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God." The whole personality of the great Virginian is back of that simple, perfect sentence. It brings us to our feet, like a national anthem.

One American, no doubt our most gifted man of letters of that century, passed most of the Revolutionary period abroad, in the service of his country. Benjamin Franklin was fifty-nine in the year of the Stamp Act. When he returned from France in 1785 he was seventy-nine, but he was still writing as admirably as ever when he died at eighty-four. We cannot dismiss this singular, varied, and fascinating American better than by quoting the letter which George Washington wrote to him in September, 1789. It has the dignity and formality of the eighteenth century, but it is warm with tested friendship and it glows with deep human feeling: "If to be venerated for benevolence, if to be admired for talents, if to be esteemed for patriotism, if to be beloved for philanthropy, can gratify the human mind, you must have the pleasing consolation to know that you have not lived in vain. And I flatter myself that it will not be ranked among the least grateful occurrences of your life to be assured, that, so long as I retain my memory, you will be recollected with respect, veneration, and affection by your sincere friend, George Washington."

There remains another Virginian, the symbol of the Revolutionary age, the author of words more widely known around the globe than any other words penned by an American. "Thomas Jefferson," writes the latest of his successors in the Presidency, "was not a man of the people, but he was a man of such singular insight that he saw that all the roots of generous power come from the people." On his father's side Jefferson came from sound yeoman stock, in which Welsh blood ran. His mother was a Virginia Randolph. Born in Albemarle County, near the "little mountain"—Monticello—where he built a mansion for his bride and where he lies buried, the tall, strong, red-haired, gray-eyed, gifted boy was reputed the best shot, the best rider, the best fiddle-player in the county. He studied hard at William and Mary over his Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, but he also frequented the best society of the little capital. He learned to call himself a Deist and to theorize about ideal commonwealths. There was already in him that latent radicalism which made him strike down, as soon as he had the power, two of the fundamental principles of the society into which he was born, the principle of entailed property and that of church establishment.

Such was the youth of twenty-two who was thrilled in 1765 by the Stamp Act. In the ten years of passionate discussion which followed, two things became clear: first, that there had long existed among the colonists very radical theoretical notions of political freedom; and second, that there was everywhere a spirit of practical conservatism. Jefferson illustrates the union of these two tendencies.

He took his seat in the Continental Congress in June, 1775. He was only thirty-two, but he had already written, in the summer of 1774, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" which had been published in England by Burke, himself a judge of good writing and sound politics. Jefferson had also prepared in 1775 the "Address of the Virginia House of Burgesses." For these reasons he was placed at the head of the Committee for drafting the Declaration of Independence. We need not linger over the familiar circumstances of its composition. Everybody knows how Franklin and Adams made a few verbal alterations in the first draft, how the committee of five then reported it to the Congress, which proceeded to cut out about one-fourth of the matter, while Franklin tried to comfort the writhing author with his cheerful story about the sign of John Thompson the hatter. Forty-seven years afterwards, in reply to the charge of lack of originality brought against the Declaration by Timothy Pickering and John Adams—charges which have been repeated at intervals ever since—Jefferson replied philosophically: "Whether I gathered my ideas from reading or reflection I do not know. I know only that I turned neither to book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before." O wise young man, and fundamentally Anglo-Saxon young man, to turn his back, in that crisis, to the devil of mere cleverness, and stick to recognized facts and accepted sentiments! But his pen retains its cunning in spite of him; and the drop of hot Welsh blood tells; and the cosmopolitan reading and thinking tell; and they transform what Pickering called a "commonplace compilation, its sentiments hackneyed in Congress for two years before," into an immortal manifesto to mankind.

Its method is the simplest. The preamble is philosophical, dealing with "self-evident" truths. Today the men who dislike or doubt these truths dismiss the preamble as "theoretical," or, to use another term of derogation favored by reactionaries, "French." But if the preamble be French and philosophical, the specific charges against the King are very English and practical. Here are certain facts, presented no doubt with consummate rhetorical skill, but facts, undeniably. The Anglo-Saxon in Jefferson is basal, racial; the turn for academic philosophizing after the French fashion is personal, acquired; but the range and sweep and enduring vitality of this matchless state paper lie in its illumination of stubborn facts by general principles, its decent respect to the opinions of mankind, its stately and noble utterance of national sentiments and national reasons to a "candid world."

It has long been the fashion, among a certain school of half-hearted Americans—and unless I am mistaken, the teaching has increased during the last decades—to minimize the value of Jefferson's "self-evident truths." Rufus Choate, himself a consummate rhetorician, sneered at those "glittering generalities," and countless college-bred men, some of them occupying the highest positions, have echoed the sneer. The essence of the objection to Jefferson's platform lies of course in his phrase, "all men are created equal," with the subsidiary phrase about governments "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Editors and congressmen and even college professors have proclaimed themselves unable to assent to these phrases of the Declaration, and unable even to understand them. These objectors belong partly, I think, in Jefferson's category of "nervous persons"—"anti-republicans," as he goes on to define them—"whose languid fibres have more analogy with a passive than an active state of things." Other objectors to the phrase "all men are created equal" have had an obvious personal or political motive for refusing assent to the proposition. But "no intelligent man," says one of Jefferson's biographers, "has ever misconstrued it [the Declaration] except intentionally."

Nobody would claim today that Thomas Jefferson's statement of the sentiments and reasons for the independence of the thirteen British colonies in 1776 was an adequate handbook of political wisdom, fit for all the exigencies of contemporary American democracy. It is not that. It is simply, in Lincoln's phrase, one of "the standard maxims of free society" which no democracy can safely disregard.

Jefferson's long life, so varied, so flexible, so responsive to the touch of popular forces, illustrates the process by which the Virginia mind of 1743 became the nationalized, unionized mind of 1826. It is needless here to dwell upon the traits of his personal character: his sweetness of spirit, his stout-heartedness in disaster, his scorn of money, his love for the intellectual life. "I have no ambition to govern men," he wrote to Edward Rutledge. He was far happier talking about Greek and Anglo-Saxon with Daniel Webster before the fire-place of Monticello than he ever was in the presidential chair. His correspondence was enormous. His writings fill twenty volumes. In his theories of education he was fifty years ahead of his time; in his absolute trust in humanity he was generations ahead of it. "I am not one of those who fear the people," he declared proudly. It is because of this touching faith, this invincible and matchless ardor, that Jefferson is today remembered. He foreshadowed Lincoln. His belief in the inarticulate common people is rewarded by their obstinate fidelity to his name as a type and symbol. "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves," wrote Jefferson, and with the people themselves is the depository of his fame.


The Fourth of July orator for 1826 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was Edward Everett. Although only thirty-two he was already a distinguished speaker. In the course of his oration he apostrophized John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as venerable survivors of that momentous day, fifty years earlier, which had witnessed our Declaration of Independence. But even as Everett was speaking, the aged author of the Declaration breathed his last at Monticello, and in the afternoon of that same day Adams died also, murmuring, it is said, with his latest breath, and as if with the whimsical obstinacy of an old man who hated to be beaten by his ancient rival, "Thomas Jefferson still lives." But Jefferson was already gone.

On the first of August, Everett commemorated the career of the two Revolutionary leaders, and on the following day a greater than Everett, Daniel Webster, pronounced the famous eulogy in Faneuil Hall. Never were the thoughts and emotions of a whole country more adequately voiced than in this commemorative oratory. Its pulse was high with national pride over the accomplishments of half a century. "I ask," Everett declared, "whether more has not been done to extend the domain of civilization, in fifty years, since the Declaration of Independence, than would have been done in five centuries of continued colonial subjection?" Webster asserted in his peroration: "It cannot be denied, but by those who would dispute against the sun, that with America, and in America, a new era commences in human affairs. This era is distinguished by free representative governments, by entire religious liberty, by improved systems of national intercourse, by a newly awakened and an unconquerable spirit of free enquiry, and by a diffusion of knowledge through the community such as has been before altogether unknown and unheard of."

Was this merely the "tall talk" then so characteristic of American oratory and soon to be satirized in "Martin Chuzzlewit"? Or was it prompted by a deep and true instinct for the significance of the vast changes that had come over American life since 1776? The external changes were familiar enough to Webster's auditors: the opening of seemingly illimitable territory through the Louisiana Purchase, the development of roads, canals, and manufactures; a rapid increase in wealth and population; a shifting of political power due to the rise of the new West—in a word, the evidences of irrepressible national energy. But this energy was inadequately expressed by the national literature. The more cultivated Americans were quite aware of this deficiency. It was confessed by the pessimistic Fisher Ames and by the ardent young men who in 1815 founded "The North American Review." British critics in "The Edinburgh" and "The Quarterly," commenting upon recent works of travel in America, pointed out the literary poverty of the American soil. Sydney Smith, by no means the most offensive of these critics, declared in 1820: "During the thirty or forty years of their independence they have done absolutely nothing for the sciences, for the arts, for literature.... In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?"

Sydney Smith's question "Who reads an American book?" has outlived all of his own clever volumes. Even while he was asking it, London was eagerly reading Irving's "Sketch Book." In 1821 came Fenimore Cooper's Spy and Bryant's "Poems," and by 1826, when Webster was announcing in his rolling orotund that Adams and Jefferson were no more, the London and Paris booksellers were covering their stalls with Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans." Irving, Cooper, and Bryant are thus the pioneers in a new phase of American literary activity, often called, for convenience in labeling, the Knickerbocker Group because of the identification of these men with New York. And close behind these leaders come a younger company, destined likewise, in the shy boyish words of Hawthorne, one of the number, "to write books that would be read in England." For by 1826 Hawthorne and Longfellow were out of college and were trying to learn to write. Ticknor, Prescott, and Bancroft, somewhat older men, were settling to their great tasks. Emerson was entering upon his duties as a minister. Edgar Allan Poe, at that University of Virginia which Jefferson had just founded, was doubtless revising "Tamerlane and Other Poems" which he was to publish in Boston in the following year. Holmes was a Harvard undergraduate. Garrison had just printed Whittier's first published poem in the Newburyport "Free Press." Walt Whitman was a barefooted boy on Long Island, and Lowell, likewise seven years of age, was watching the birds in the treetops of Elmwood. But it was Washington Irving who showed all of these men that nineteenth century England would be interested in American books.

The very word Knickerbocker is one evidence of the vitality of Irving's happy imaginings. In 1809 he had invented a mythical Dutch historian of New York named Diedrich Knickerbocker and fathered upon him a witty parody of Dr. Mitchill's grave "Picture of New York." To read Irving's chapters today is to witness one of the rarest and most agreeable of phenomena, namely, the actual beginning of a legend which the world is unwilling to let die. The book made Sir Walter Scott's sides ache with laughter, and reminded him of the humor of Swift and Sterne. But certain New Yorkers were slow to see the joke.

Irving was himself a New Yorker, born just at the close of the Revolution, of a Scotch father and English mother. His youth was pleasantly idle, with a little random education, much theater-going, and plentiful rambles with a gun along the Hudson River. In 1804 he went abroad for his health, returned and helped to write the light social satire of the "Salmagundi Papers," and became, after the publication of the "Knickerbocker History," a local celebrity. Sailing for England in 1815 on business, he stayed until 1832 as a roving man of letters in England and Spain and then as Secretary of the American Legation in London. "The Sketch Book," "Bracebridge Hall," and "Tales of a Traveler" are the best known productions of Irving's fruitful residence in England. The "Life of Columbus," the "Conquest of Granada," and "The Alhambra" represent his first sojourn in Spain. After his return to America he became fascinated with the Great West, made the travels described in his "Tour of the Prairies," and told the story of roving trappers and the fur trade in "Captain Bonneville" and "Astoria." For four years he returned to Spain as American Minister. In his last tranquil years at Sunnyside on the Hudson, where he died in 1859, he wrote graceful lives of Goldsmith and of Washington.

Such a glance at the shelf containing Irving's books suggests but little of that personal quality to which he owes his significance as an interpreter of America to the Old World. This son of a narrow, hard, Scotch dealer in cutlery, this drifter about town when New York was only a big slovenly village, this light-hearted scribbler of satire and sentiment, was a gentleman born. His boyhood and youth were passed in that period of Post-Revolutionary reaction which exhibits the United States in some of its most unlovely aspects. Historians like Henry Adams and McMaster have painted in detail the low estate of education, religion, and art as the new century began. The bitter feeling of the nascent nation toward Great Britain was intensified by the War of 1812. The Napoleonic Wars had threatened to break the last threads of our friendship for France, and suspicion of the Holy Alliance led to an era of national self-assertion of which the Monroe Doctrine was only one expression. The raw Jacksonism of the West seemed to be gaining upon the older civilizations represented by Virginia and Massachusetts. The self-made type of man began to pose as the genuine American. And at this moment came forward a man of natural lucidity and serenity of mind, of perfect poise and good temper, who knew both Europe and America and felt that they ought to know one another better and to like one another more. That was Irving's service as an international mediator. He diffused sweetness and light in an era marked by bitterness and obscuration. It was a triumph of character as well as of literary skill.

But the skill was very noticeable also. Irving's prose is not that of the Defoe-Swift-Franklin-Paine type of plain talk to the crowd. It is rather an inheritance from that other eighteenth century tradition, the conversation of the select circle. Its accents were heard in Steele and Addison and were continued in Goldsmith, Sterne, Cowper, and Charles Lamb. Among Irving's successors, George William Curtis and Charles Dudley Warner and William Dean Howells have been masters of it likewise. It is mellow human talk, delicate, regardful, capable of exquisite modulation. With instinctive artistic taste, Irving used this old and sound style upon fresh American material. In "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" he portrayed his native valley of the Hudson, and for a hundred years connoisseurs of style have perceived the exquisite fitness of the language to the images and ideas which Irving desired to convey. To render the Far West of that epoch this style is perhaps not "big" and broad enough, but when used as Irving uses it in describing Stratford and Westminster Abbey and an Old English Christmas, it becomes again a perfect medium. Hawthorne adopted it for "Our Old Home," and Englishmen recognized it at once as a part of their own inheritance, enriched, like certain wines, by the voyage across the Atlantic and home again. Irving wrote of England, Mr. Warner once said, as Englishmen would have liked to write about it. When he described the Alhambra and Granada and the Moors, it was the style, rich both in physical sensation and in dreamlike reverie, which revealed to the world the quick American appreciation of foreign scenes and characters. Its key is sympathy.

Irving's popularity has endured in England. It suffered during the middle of the century in his own country, for the strongest New England authors taught the public to demand more thought and passion than were in Irving's nature. Possibly the nervous, journalistic style of the twentieth century allows too scanty leisure of mind for the full enjoyment of the Knickerbocker flavor. Yet such changes as these in literary fashion scarcely affect the permanent service of Irving to our literature. He immortalized a local type—the New York Dutchman—and local legends, like that of Rip van Winkle; he used the framework of the narrative essay to create something almost like the perfected short story of Poe and Hawthorne; he wrote prose with unfailing charm in an age when charm was lacking; and, if he had no message, it should be remembered that some of the most useful ambassadors have had none save to reveal, with delicacy and tact and humorous kindness, the truth that foreign persons have feelings precisely like our own.

Readers of Sir Walter Scott's "Journal" may remember his account of an evening party in Paris in 1826 where he met Fenimore Cooper, then in the height of his European reputation. "So the Scotch and American lions took the field together," wrote Sir Walter, who loved to be generous. "The Last of the Mohicans," then just published, threatened to eclipse the fame of "Ivanhoe." Cooper, born in 1789, was eighteen years younger than the Wizard of the North, and was more deeply indebted to him than he knew. For it was Scott who had created the immense nineteenth century audience for prose fiction, and who had evolved a kind of formula for the novel, ready for Cooper's use. Both men were natural story-tellers. Scott had the richer mind and the more fully developed historical imagination. Both were out-of-doors men, lovers of manly adventure and of natural beauty. But the American had the good fortune to be able to utilize in his books his personal experiences of forest and sea and to reveal to Europe the real romance of the American wilderness.

That Cooper was the first to perceive the artistic possibilities of this romance, no one would claim. Brockden Brown, a Quaker youth of Philadelphia, a disciple of the English Godwin, had tried his hand at the very end of the eighteenth century upon American variations of the Gothic romance then popular in England. Brown had a keen eye for the values of the American landscape and even of the American Indian. He had a knack for passages of ghastly power, as his descriptions of maniacs, murderers, sleep-walkers, and solitaries abundantly prove. But he had read too much and lived too little to rival the masters of the art of fiction. And there was a traveled Frenchman, Chateaubriand, surely an expert in the art of eloquent prose, who had transferred to the pages of his American Indian stories, "Atala" and "Rene," the mystery and enchantment of our dark forests and endless rivers. But Chateaubriand, like Brockden Brown, is feverish. A taint of old-world eroticism and despair hovers like a miasma over his magnificent panorama of the wilderness. Cooper, like Scott, is masculine.

He was a Knickerbocker only by adoption. Born in New Jersey, his childhood was spent in the then remote settlement of Cooperstown in Central New York. He had a little schooling at Albany, and a brief and inglorious career at Yale with the class of 1806. He went to sea for two years, and then served for three years in the United States Navy upon Lakes Ontario and Champlain, the very scene of some of his best stories. In 1811 he married, resigned from the Navy, and settled upon a little estate in Westchester County, near New York. Until the age of thirty, he was not in the least a bookman, but a healthy, man of action. Then, as the well-known anecdote goes, he exclaims to his wife, after reading a stupid English novel, "I believe I could write a better story myself." "Precaution" (1820) was the result, but whether it was better than the unknown English book, no one can now say. It was bad enough. Yet the next year Cooper published "The Spy," one of the finest of his novels, which was instantly welcomed in England and translated in France. Then came, in swift succession, "The Pioneers," the first Leather-Stocking tale in order of composition, and "The Pilot," to show that Scott's "Pirate" was written by a landsman! "Lionel Lincoln" and "The Last of the Mohicans" followed. The next seven years were spent in Europe, mainly in France, where "The Prairie" and "The Red Rover" were written. Cooper now looked back upon his countrymen with eyes of critical detachment, and made ready to tell them some of their faults. He came home to Cooperstown in 1833, the year after Irving's return to America. He had won, deservedly, a great fame, which he proceeded to imperil by his combativeness with his neighbors and his harsh strictures upon the national character, due mainly to his lofty conception of the ideal America. He continued to spin yarns of sea and shore, and to write naval history. The tide of fashion set against him in the eighteen-forties when Bulwer and Dickens rode into favor, but the stouthearted old pioneer could afford to bide his time. He died in 1851, just as Mrs. Stowe was writing "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Two generations have passed since then, and Cooper's place in our literature remains secure. To have written our first historical novel, "The Spy," our first sea-story, "The Pilot," and to have created the Leather-Stocking series, is glory enough. In his perception of masculine character, Cooper ranks with Fielding. His sailors, his scouts and spies, his good and bad Indians, are as veritable human figures as Squire Western. Long Tom Coffin, Harvey Birch, Hawk-Eye, and Chingachgook are physically and morally true to life itself. Read the Leather-Stocking books in the order of the events described, beginning with "The Deerslayer," then "The Last of the Mohicans," "The Pathfinder," "The Pioneers", and ending with the vast darkening horizon of "The Prairie" and the death of the trapper, and one will feel how natural and inevitable are the fates of the personages and the alterations in the life of the frontier. These books vary in their poetic quality and in the degree of their realism, but to watch the evolution of the leading figure is to see human life in its actual texture.

Clever persons and pedantic persons have united to find fault with certain elements of Cooper's art. Mark Twain, in one of his least inspired moments, selected Cooper's novels for attack. Every grammar school teacher is ready to point out that his style is often prolix and his sentences are sometimes ungrammatical. Amateurs even criticize Cooper's seamanship, although it seemed impeccable to Admiral Mahan. No doubt one must admit the "helplessness, propriety, and incapacity" of most of Cooper's women, and the dreadfulness of his bores, particularly the Scotchmen, the doctors, and the naturalists. Like Sir Walter, Cooper seems to have taken but little pains in the deliberate planning of his plots. Frequently he accepts a ready-made formula of villain and hero, predicament and escape, renewed crisis and rescue, mystification and explanation, worthy of a third-rate novelist. His salvation lies in his genius for action, the beauty and grandeur of his landscapes, the primitive veracity of his children of nature. Cooper was an elemental man, and he comprehended, by means of something deeper than mere artistic instinct, the feelings of elemental humanity in the presence of the wide ocean or of the deep woods. He is as healthy and sane as Fielding, and he possesses an additional quality which all of the purely English novelists lack. It was the result of his youthful sojourn in the wilderness. Let us call it the survival in him of an aboriginal imagination. Cooper reminds one somehow of a moose—an ungraceful creature perhaps, but indubitably big, as many a hunter has suddenly realized when he has come unexpectedly upon a moose that whirled to face him in the twilight silence of a northern wood.

Something of this far-off and gigantic primitivism inheres also in the poetry of William Cullen Bryant. His portrait, with the sweeping white beard and the dark folds of the cloak, suggests the Bard as the Druids might have known him. But in the eighteen-thirties and forties, Mr. Bryant's alert, clean-shaven face, and energetic gait as he strode down Broadway to the "Evening Post" office, suggested little more than a vigorous and somewhat radical editor of an increasingly prosperous Democratic newspaper. There was nothing of the Fringed Gentian or Yellow Violet about him. Like so many of the Knickerbockers, Bryant was an immigrant to New York; in fact, none of her adopted men of letters have represented so perfectly the inherited traits of the New England Puritan. To understand his long, and honorable public life it is necessary to know something of the city of his choice, but to enter into the spirit of his poetry one must go back to the hills of western Massachusetts.

Bryant had a right to his cold-weather mind. He came from Mayflower stock. His father, Dr. Peter Bryant of Cummington, was a sound country physician, with liberal preferences in theology, Federalist views in politics, and a library of seven hundred volumes, rich in poetry. The poet's mother records his birth in her diary in terse words which have the true Spartan tang: "Nov. 3, 1794. Stormy, wind N. E. Churned. Seven in the evening a son born." Two days later the November wind shifted. "Nov. 5, 1794. Clear, wind N. W. Made Austin a coat. Sat up all day. Went into the kitchen." The baby, it appears, had an abnormally large head and was dipped, day after day, in rude hydropathy, into an icy spring. A precocious childhood was followed by a stern, somewhat unhappy, but aspiring boyhood. The little fellow, lying prone with his brothers before the firelight of the kitchen, reading English poetry from his father's library, used to pray that he too might become a poet. At thirteen he produced a satire on Jefferson, "The Embargo," which his proud Federalist father printed at Boston in 1808. The youth had nearly one year at Williams College, over the mountain ranges to the west. He wished to continue his education at Yale, but his father had no money for this greater venture, and the son remained at home. There, in the autumn of 1811, on the bleak hills, he composed the first draft of "Thanatopsis." He was seventeen, and he had been reading Blair's "Grave" and the poems of the consumptive Henry Kirke White. He hid his verses in a drawer, and five years later his father found them, shed tears over them, and sent them to the "North American Review," where they were published in September, 1817.

In the meantime the young man had studied law, though with dislike of it, and with the confession that he sometimes read "The Lyrical Ballads" when he might have been reading Blackstone. One December afternoon in 1815, he was walking from Cummington to Plainfield—aged twenty-one, and looking for a place in which to settle as a lawyer. Across the vivid sunset flew a black duck, as solitary and homeless as himself. The bird seemed an image of his own soul, "lone wandering but not lost." Before he slept that night he had composed the poem "To a Waterfowl." No more authentic inspiration ever visited a poet, and though Bryant wrote verse for more than sixty years after that crimson sky had paled into chill December twilight, his lines never again vibrated with such communicative passion.

Bryant's ensuing career revealed the steady purpose, the stoicism, the reticence of the Puritan. It was highly successful, judged even by material standards. "Thanatopsis" had been instantly regarded in 1817 as the finest poem yet produced in America. The author was invited to contribute to the "North American Review" an essay on American poetry, and this, like all of Bryant's prose work, was admirably written. He delivered his Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem, "The Ages," in 1821, the year of Emerson's graduation. After a brief practice of the law in Great Barrington, he entered in 1826 into the unpromising field of journalism in New York. While other young Knickerbockers wasted their literary strength on trifles and dissipated their moral energies, Bryant held steadily to his daily task. His life in town was sternly ascetic, but he allowed himself long walks in the country, and he continued to meditate a somewhat thankless Muse. In 1832 he visited his brothers on the Illinois prairies, and stopped one day to chat with a "tall awkward uncouth lad" of racy conversational powers, who was leading his company of volunteers into the Black Hawk War. The two men were destined to meet again in 1860, when Bryant presided at that Cooper Union address of Lincoln's which revealed to New York and to the country that the former captain of volunteers was now a king of men. Lincoln was embarrassed on that occasion, it is said, by Bryant's fastidious, dignified presence. Not so Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had seen the poet in Rome, two years before. "There was a weary look in his face," wrote Hawthorne, "as if he were tired of seeing things and doing things....He uttered neither passion nor poetry, but excellent good sense, and accurate information, on whatever subject transpired; a very pleasant man to associate with, but rather cold, I should imagine, if one should seek to touch his heart with one's own." Such was the impression Bryant made upon less gifted men than Hawthorne, as he lived out his long and useful life in the Knickerbocker city. Toward the close of it he was in great demand for public occasions; and it was after delivering a speech dedicating a statue to Mazzini in Central Park in 1878, when Bryant was eighty-four, that a fit of dizziness caused a fall which proved fatal to the venerable poet. It was just seventy years since Dr. Peter Bryant had published his boy's verses on "The Embargo."

Although Bryant's poetry has never roused any vociferous excitement, it has enduring qualities. The spiritual preoccupations of many a voiceless generation of New England Puritans found a tongue at last in this late-born son of theirs. The determining mood of his best poems, from boyhood to old age, was precisely that thought of transiency, "the eternal flow of things," which colored the imaginations of the first colonists. This is the central motive of "Thanatopsis," "To a Waterfowl," "The Rivulet," "A Forest Hymn," "An Evening Revery," "The Crowded Street," "The Flood of Years." All of these tell the same story of endless change and of endless abiding, of varying eddies in the same mighty stream of human existence. Bryant faced the thought as calmly, as majestically, at seventeen as when he wrote "The Flood of Years" at eighty-two. He is a master of description, though he has slight gift for narrative or drama, and he rarely sounds the clear lyric note. But everywhere in his verse there is that cold purity of the winter hills in Western Massachusetts, something austere and elemental which reaches kindred spirits below the surface on which intellect and passion have their play, something more primitive, indeed, than human intellect or passion and belonging to another mode of being, something "rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun."

A picture of the Knickerbocker era is not complete without its portraits of the minor figures in the literary life of New York up to the time of the Civil War. But the scope of the present volume does not permit sketches of Paulding and Verplanck, of Halleck and his friend Drake, of N. P. Willis and Morris and Woodworth. Some of these are today only "single-poem" men, like Payne, the author of "Home Sweet Home," just as Key, the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," is today a "single-poem" man of an earlier generation. Their names will be found in such limbos of the dead as Griswold's "Poets and Poetry of America" and Poe's "Literati." They knew "the town" in their day, and pleased its very easily pleased taste. The short-lived literary magazines of the eighteen-forties gave them their hour of glory. As representatives of passing phases of the literary history of New York their careers are not without sentimental interest, but few of them spoke to or for the country as a whole. Two figures, indeed, stand out in sharp contrast with those habitual strollers on Broadway and frequenters of literary gatherings, though each of them was for a while a part of Knickerbocker New York. To all appearances they were only two more Bohemians like the rest, but the curiosity of the twentieth century sets them apart from their forgotten contemporaries. They are two of the unluckiest—and yet luckiest—authors who ever tried to sell a manuscript along Broadway. One of them is Edgar Allan Poe and the other is Walt Whitman. They shall have a chapter to themselves.

But before turning to that chapter, we must look back to New England once more and observe the blossoming-time of its ancient commonwealths. During the thirty years preceding the Civil War New England awoke to a new life of the spirit. So varied and rich was her literary productiveness in this era that it still remains her greatest period, and so completely did New England writers of this epoch voice the ideals of the nation that the great majority of Americans, even today, regard these New Englanders as the truest literary exponents of the mind and soul of the United States. We must take a look at them.


To understand the literary leadership of New England during the thirty years immediately preceding the Civil War it is necessary to recall the characteristics of a somewhat isolated and peculiar people. The mental and moral traits of the New England colonists, already glanced at in an earlier chapter, had suffered little essential modification in two hundred years. The original racial stock was still dominant. As compared with the middle and southern colonies, there was relatively little immigration, and this was easily assimilated. The physical remoteness of New England from other sections of the country, and the stubborn loyalty with which its inhabitants maintained their own standards of life, alike contributed to their sense of separateness. It is true, of course, that their mode of thinking and feeling had undergone certain changes. They were among the earliest theorists of political independence from Great Britain, and had done their share, and more, in the Revolution. The rigors of their early creed had somewhat relaxed, as we have seen, by the end of the seventeenth century, and throughout the eighteenth there was a gradual progress toward religious liberalism. The population steadily increased, and New England's unremitting struggle with a not too friendly soil, her hardihood upon the seas, and her keenness in trade, became proverbial throughout the country. Her seaport towns were wealthy. The general standards of living remained frugal, but extreme poverty was rare. Her people still made, as in the earliest days of the colonies, silent and unquestioned sacrifices for education, and her chief seats of learning, Harvard and Yale, remained the foremost educational centers of America. But there was still scant leisure for the quest of beauty, and slender material reward for any practitioner of the fine arts. Oratory alone, among the arts of expression, commanded popular interest and applause. Daniel Webster's audiences at Plymouth in 1820 and at Bunker Hill in 1825 were not inferior to similar audiences of today in intelligence and in responsiveness. Perhaps they were superior. Appreciation of the spoken word was natural to men trained by generations of thoughtful listening to "painful" preaching and by participation in the discussions of town-meeting. Yet appreciation of secular literature was rare, and interest in the other arts was almost non-existent.

Then, beginning in the eighteen-twenties, and developing rapidly after 1830, came a change, a change so startling as to warrant the term of "the Renascence of New England." No single cause is sufficient to account for this "new birth." It is a good illustration of that law of "tension and release," which the late Professor Shaler liked to demonstrate in all organic life. A long period of strain was followed by an age of expansion, freedom, release of energy. As far as the mental life of New England was concerned, something of the new stimulus was due directly to the influence of Europe. Just as the wandering scholars from Italy had brought the New Learning, which was a revival of the old learning, into England in the sixteenth century, so now young New England college men like Edward Everett and George Ticknor brought home from the Continent the riches of German and French scholarship. Emerson's description of the impression made by Everett's lectures in 1820, after his return from Germany, gives a vivid picture of the new thirst for foreign culture. "The North American Review" and other periodicals, while persistently urging the need of a distinctively national literature, insisted also upon the value of a deeper knowledge of the literature of the Continent. This was the burden of Channing's once famous article on "A National Literature" in 1823: it was a plea for an independent American school of writers, but these writers should know the best that Europe had to teach.

The purely literary movement was connected, as the great name of Channing suggests, with a new sense of freedom in philosophy and religion. Calvinism had mainly done its work in New England. It had bred an extraordinary type of men and women, it had, helped to lay some of the permanent foundations of our democracy, and it was still destined to have a long life in the new West and in the South. But in that stern section of the country where its influence had been most marked there was now an increasingly sharp reaction against its determinism and its pessimism. Early in the nineteenth century the most ancient and influential churches in Boston and the leading professors at Harvard had accepted the new form of religious liberalism known as Unitarianism. The movement spread throughout Eastern Massachusetts and made its way to other States. Orthodox and liberal Congregational churches split apart, and when Channing preached the ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore in 1819, the word Unitarian, accepted by the liberals with some misgiving, became the recognized motto of the new creed. It is only with its literary influence that we are here concerned, yet that literary influence became so potent that there is scarcely a New England writer of the first rank, from Bryant onward, who remained untouched by it.

The most interesting and peculiar phase of the new liberalism has little directly to do with the specific tenets of theological Unitarianism, and in fact marked a revolt against the more prosaic and conventional pattern of English and American Unitarian thought. But this movement, known as Transcendentalism, would have been impossible without a preliminary and liberalizing stirring of the soil. It was a fascinating moment of release for some of the most brilliant and radical minds of New England. Its foremost representative in our literature was Ralph Waldo Emerson, as its chief exponents in England were Coleridge and Carlyle. We must understand its meaning if we would perceive the quality of much of the most noble and beautiful writing produced in New England during the Golden Age.

What then is the significance of the word Transcendental? Disregarding for the moment the technical development of this term as used by German and English philosophers, it meant for Emerson and his friends simply this: whatever transcends or goes beyond the experience of the senses. It stressed intuition rather than sensation, direct perception of ultimate truth rather than the processes of logic. It believed in man's ability to apprehend the absolute ideas of Truth, Rectitude, Goodness. It resembled the Inner Light of the Quaker, though the Quaker traced this to a supernatural illumination of the Holy Spirit, while the Transcendentalist believed that a vision of the eternal realities was a natural endowment of the human mind. It had only to be trusted. Stated in this form, it is evident that we have here a very ancient doctrine, well known in the literature of India and of Greece. It has been held by countless persons who have never heard of the word Transcendentalism. We need go no further back than Alexander Pope, a Roman Catholic, whom we find declaring: "I am so certain of the soul's being immortal that I seem to feel it within me, as it were by intuition." Pope's friend Swift, a dean of the Church of England and assuredly no Transcendentalist, defined vision as seeing the things that are invisible.

Now turn to some of the New England men. Dr. C. A. Bartol, a disciple of Emerson, maintained that "the mistake is to make the everlasting things subjects of argument instead of sight." Theodore Parker declared to his congregation:

"From the primitive facts of consciousness given by the power of instinctive intuition, I endeavored to deduce the true notion of God, of justice and futurity.... I found most help in the works of Immanuel Kant, one of the profoundest thinkers of the world, though one of the worst writers, even in Germany; if he did not always furnish conclusions I could rest in, he yet gave me the true method, and put me on the right road. I found certain great primal Intuitions of Human Nature, which depend on no logical process of demonstration, but are rather facts of consciousness given by the instinctive action of human nature itself. I will mention only the three most important which pertain to Religion. 1. The Instinctive Intuition of the Divine, the consciousness that there is a God. 2. The Instinctive Intuition of the Just and Right, a consciousness that there is a Moral Law, independent of our will, which we ought to keep. 3. The Instinctive Intuition of the Immortal, a consciousness that the Essential Element of man, the principle of Individuality, never dies."

This passage dates from 1859, and readers of Bergson may like to compare it with the contemporary Frenchman's saying: "The analytical faculties can give us no realities."

Let us next hear Emerson himself, first in an early letter to his brother Edward: "Do you draw the distinction of Milton, Coleridge, and the Germans between Reason and Understanding? I think it a philosophy itself, and, like all truth, very practical. Reason is the highest faculty of the soul, what we mean often by the soul itself: it never reasons, never proves, it simply perceives, it is vision. The understanding toils all the time, compares, contrives, adds, argues; near-sighted, but strong-sighted, dwelling in the present, the expedient, the customary." And in 1833, after he had left the Unitarian pulpit, Emerson made in his diary this curious attempt to reconcile the scriptural language of his ancestral profession to the new vocabulary of Transcendentalism: "Jesus Christ was a minister of the pure Reason. The beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount are all utterances of the mind contemning the phenomenal world... . The understanding can make nothing of it. 'Tis all nonsense. The Reason affirms its absolute verity.... St. Paul marks the distinction by the terms natural man and spiritual man. When Novalis says, 'It is the instinct of the Understanding to contradict the Reason,' he only translates into a scientific formula the doctrine of St. Paul, 'The Carnal Mind is enmity against God.'"

One more quotation must suffice. It is from a poem by a forgotten Transcendentalist, F. G. Tuckerman.

"No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead; But, leaving straining thought and stammering word, Across the barren azure pass to God; Shooting the void in silence, like a bird— A bird that shuts his wings for better speed!"

It is obvious that this "contemning the phenomenal world," this "revulsion against the intellect as the sole source of truth," is highly dangerous to second-class minds. If one habitually prints the words Insight, Instinct, Intuition, Consciousness with capitals, and relegates equally useful words like senses, experience, fact, logic to lower-case type, one may do it because he is a Carlyle or an Emerson, but the chances are that he is neither. Transcendentalism, like all idealistic movements, had its "lunatic fringe," its camp-followers of excitable, unstable visionaries. The very name, like the name Methodist, was probably bestowed upon it in mockery, and this whole perturbation of staid New England had its humorous side. Witness the career of Bronson Alcott. It is also true that the glorious affirmations of these seers can be neither proved nor disproved. They made no examination and they sought no validation of consciousness. An explorer in search of the North Pole must bring back proofs of his journey, but when a Transcendentalist affirms that he has reached the far heights of human experience and even caught sight of the gods sitting on their thrones, you and I are obliged to take his word for it. Sometimes we hear such a man gladly, but it depends upon the man, not upon the trustworthiness of the method. Finally it should be observed that the Transcendental movement was an exceedingly complex one, being both literary, philosophic, and religious; related also to the subtle thought of the Orient, to mediaeval mysticism, and to the English Platonists; touched throughout by the French Revolutionary theories, by the Romantic spirit, by the new zeal for science and pseudo-science, and by the unrest of a fermenting age.

Our present concern is with the impact of this cosmopolitan current upon the mind and character of a few New England writers. Channing and Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller and Alcott, Thoreau and Emerson, are all representative of the best thought and the noblest ethical impulses of their generation. Let us choose first the greatest name: a sunward-gazing spirit, and, it may be, one of the very Sun-Gods.

The pilgrim to Concord who stops for a moment in the village library to study French's statue of Emerson will notice the asymmetrical face. On one side it is the face of a keen Yankee farmer, but seen from the other side it is the countenance of a seer, a world's man. This contrast between the parochial Emerson and the greater Emerson interprets many a puzzle in his career. Half a mile beyond the village green to the north, close to the "rude bridge" of the famous Concord fight in 1775, is the Old Manse, once tenanted and described by Hawthorne. It was built by Emerson's grandfather, a patriot chaplain in the Revolution, who died of camp-fever at Ticonderoga. His widow married Dr. Ezra Ripley, and here Ralph Waldo Emerson and his brothers passed many a summer in their childhood. Half a mile east of the village, on the Cambridge turnpike, is Emerson's own house, still sheltered by the pines which Thoreau helped him to plant in 1838. Within the house everything is unchanged: here are the worn books, pen and inkstand, the favorite pictures upon the wall. Over the ridge to the north lies the Sleepy Hollow cemetery where the poet rests, with the gravestones of Hawthorne and the Alcotts, Thoreau and William James close by.

But although Concord is the Emerson shrine, he was born in Boston, in 1803. His father, named William like the grandfather, was also, like the Emerson ancestors for many generations, a clergyman—eloquent, liberal, fond of books and music, highly honored by his alma mater Harvard and by the town of Boston, where he ministered to the First Church. His premature death in 1811 left his widow with five sons—one of them feebleminded—and a daughter to struggle hard with poverty. With her husband's sister, the Calvinistic "Aunt Mary Moody" Emerson, she held, however, that these orphaned boys had been "born to be educated." And educated the "eager blushing boys" were, at the Boston Latin School and at Harvard College, on a regimen of "toil and want and truth and mutual faith." There are many worse systems of pedagogy than this. Ralph was thought less persistent than his steady older brother William, and far less brilliant than his gifted, short-lived younger brothers, Edward and Charles. He had an undistinguished career at Harvard, where he was graduated in 1821, ranking thirtieth in a class of fifty-nine. Lovers of irony like to remember that he was the seventh choice of his classmates for the position of class poet. After some desultory teaching to help his brothers, he passed irregularly through the Divinity School, his studies often interrupted by serious ill-health. "If they had examined me," he said afterward of the kindly professors in the Divinity School, "they never would have passed me." But approve him they did, in 1826, and he entered decorously upon the profession of his ancestors, as associate minister of the Second Church in Boston. His "Journals," which are a priceless record of his inner life, at this and later periods, reveal the rigid self-scrutiny, the tender idealism, with which he began his ministerial career.

But as a scheme of life for Ralph Waldo Emerson this vocation would not satisfy. The sexton of the Second Church thought that the young man was not at his best at funerals. Father Taylor, the eccentric Methodist, whom Emerson assisted at a sailor's Bethel near Long Wharf, considered him "one of the sweetest souls God ever made," but as ignorant of the principles of the New Testament as Balaam's ass was of Hebrew grammar. By and by came an open difference with his congregation over the question of administering the Communion. "I am not interested in it," Emerson admitted, and he wrote in his "Journal" the noble words: "It is my desire, in the office of a Christian minister, to do nothing which I cannot do with my whole heart." His resignation was accepted in 1832. His young wife had died of consumption in the same year. He now sailed for Italy, France, and England, a memorable journey which gave him an acquaintance with Landor, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle, but which was even more significant in sending him, as he says, back to himself, to the resources of his own nature. "When shows break up," wrote Whitman afterward, "what but oneself is sure?" In 1834 and 1835 we find Emerson occupying a room in the Old Manse at Concord, strolling in the quiet fields, lecturing or preaching if he were invited to do so, but chiefly absorbed in a little book which he was beginning to write—a new utterance of a new man.

This book, the now famous "Nature" of 1836, contains the essence of Emerson's message to his generation. It is a prose essay, but written in the ecstatic mood of a poet. The theme of its meditation is the soul as related to Nature and to God. The soul is primal; Nature, in all its bountiful and beautiful commodities, exists for the training of the soul; it is the soul's shadow. And every soul has immediate access to Deity. Thus the utility and beauty and discipline of Nature lift the soul Godward. The typical sentence of the book is this: "The sun shines today also"; that is to say: the world is still alive and fair; let us lift up our hearts! Only a few Americans of 1836 bought this singular volume, but Emerson went serenely forward. He had found his path.

In 1837 he delivered the well-known Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard on "The American Scholar." Emerson was now thirty-four; he had married a second time, had bought a house of his own in Concord, and purposed to make a living by lecturing and writing. His address in Cambridge, though it contained no reference to himself, was after all a justification of the way of life he had chosen: a declaration of intellectual independence for himself and his countrymen, an exhortation of self-trust to the individual thinking man. "If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts and there abide, the huge world will come round to him." Such advice to cut loose from the moorings of the past was not unknown in Phi Beta Kappa orations, though it had never been so brilliantly phrased; but when Emerson applied precisely the same doctrine, in 1838, to the graduating class at the Harvard Divinity School, he roused a storm of disapproval. "A tempest in our washbowl," he wrote coolly to Carlyle, but it was more than that. The great sentence of the Divinity School address, "God is, not was; he speaketh, not spake," was the emphasis of a superb rhetorician upon the immediacy of the soul's access to God. It has been the burden of a thousand prophets in all religions. The young priests of the Divinity School, their eyes wearied with Hebrew and Greek, seem to have enjoyed Emerson's injunction to turn away from past records and historical authorities and to drink from the living fountain of the divine within themselves; but to the professors, "the stern old war-gods," this relative belittlement of historical Christianity seemed blasphemy. A generation passed before Emerson was again welcomed by his alma mater.

The reader who has mastered those three utterances by the Concord Transcendentalist in 1836, 1837, and 1838 has the key to Emerson. He was a seer, not a system-maker. The constitution of his mind forbade formal, consecutive, logical thought. He was not a philosopher in the accepted sense, though he was always philosophizing, nor a metaphysician in spite of his curious searchings in the realm of metaphysics. He sauntered in books as he sauntered by Walden Pond, in quest of what interested him; he "fished in Montaigne," he said, as he fished in Plato and Goethe. He basketed the day's luck, good or bad as it might be, into the pages of his private "Journal," which he called his savings-bank, because from this source he drew most of the material for his books. The "Journal" has recently been printed, in ten volumes. No American writing rewards the reader more richly. It must be remembered that Emerson's "Essays," the first volume of which appeared in 1841, and the last volumes after his death in 1882, represent practically three stages of composition: first the detached thoughts of the "Journal;" second, the rearrangement of this material for use upon the lecture platform; and finally, the essays in their present form. The oral method thus predominates: a series of oracular thoughts has been shaped for oratorical utterance, not oratorical in the bombastic, popular American sense, but cunningly designed, by a master of rhetoric, to capture the ear and then the mind of the auditor.

Emerson's work as a lecturer coincided with the rise of that Lyceum system which brought most of the American authors, for more than a generation, into intimate contact with the public, and which proved an important factor in the aesthetic and moral cultivation of our people. No lecturer could have had a more auspicious influence than Emerson, with his quiet dignity, his serene spiritual presence, his tonic and often electrifying force. But if he gave his audiences precious gifts, he also learned much from them. For thirty years his lecturing trips to the West brought him, more widely than any New England man of letters, into contact with the new, virile America of the great Mississippi valley. Unlike many of his friends, he was not repelled by the "Jacksonism of the West"; he rated it a wholesome, vivifying force in our national thought and life. The "Journal" reveals the essential soundness of his Americanism. Though surrounded all his life by reformers, he was himself scarcely a reformer, save upon the single issue of anti-slavery. Perhaps he was at bottom too much of a radical to be swept off his feet by any reform.

To our generation, of course, Emerson presents himself as an author of books, and primarily as an essayist, rather than as a winning, entrancing speaker. His essays have a greater variety of tone than is commonly recognized. Many of them, like "Manners," "Farming," "Books," "Eloquence," "Old Age," exhibit a shrewd prudential wisdom, a sort of Yankee instinct for "the milk in the pan," that reminds one of Ben Franklin. Like most of the greater New England writers, he could be, on occasion, an admirable local historian. See his essays on "Life and Letters in New England," "New England Reformers," "Politics," and the successive entries in his "Journal" relating to Daniel Webster. He had the happiest gift of portraiture, as is witnessed by his sketches of Montaigne, of Napoleon, of Socrates (in the essay on Plato), of his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, of Thoreau, and of various types of Englishmen in his "English Traits." But the great essays, no doubt, are those like "Self-Reliance," "Compensation," "The Over-Soul," "Fate," "Power," "Culture," "Worship," and "Illusions." These will puzzle no one who has read carefully that first book on "Nature." They all preach the gospel of intuition, instinctive trust in the Universe, faith in the ecstatic moment of vision into the things that are unseen by the physical eye. Self-reliance, as Emerson's son has pointed out, means really God-reliance; the Over-Soul—always a stumbling-block to Philistines—means that high spiritual life into which all men may enter and in which they share the life of Deity. Emerson is stern enough in expounding the laws of compensation that run through the universe, but to him the chief law is the law of the ever-ascending, victorious soul.

This radiant optimism permeates his poems. By temperament a singer as well as a seer and sayer, Emerson was nevertheless deficient in the singing voice. He composed no one great poem, his verse presents no ideas that are not found in his prose. In metre and rhyme he is harsh and willful. Yet he has marvelous single phrases and cadences. He ejaculates transports and ecstasies, and though he cannot organize and construct in verse, he is capable here and there of the true miracle of transforming fact and thought into true beauty. Aldrich used to say that he would rather have written Emerson's "Bacchus" than any American poem.

That the pure, high, and tonic mind of Emerson was universal in its survey of human forces, no one would claim. Certain limitations in interest and sympathy are obvious. "That horrid burden and impediment of the soul which the churches call sin," to use John Morley's words, occupied his attention but little. Like a mountain climber in a perilous pass, he preferred to look up rather than down. He does not stress particularly those old human words, service and sacrifice. "Anti-scientific, antisocial, anti-Christian" are the terms applied to him by one of his most penetrating critics. Yet I should prefer to say "un-scientific," "unsocial," and "non-Christian," in the sense in which Plato and Isaiah are non-Christian. Perhaps it would be still nearer the truth to say, as Mrs. Lincoln said of her husband, "He was not a technical Christian." He tends to underestimate institutions of every kind; history, except as a storehouse of anecdote, and culture as a steady mental discipline. This is the price he pays for his transcendental insistence upon the supreme value of the Now, the moment of insight. But after all these limitations are properly set down, the personality of Ralph Waldo Emerson remains a priceless possession to his countrymen. The austere serenity of his life, and the perfection with which he represents the highest type of his province and his era, will ultimately become blended with the thought of his true Americanism. A democrat and liberator, like Lincoln, he seems also destined like Lincoln to become increasingly a world's figure, a friend and guide to aspiring spirits everywhere. Differences of race and creed are negligible in the presence of such superb confidence in God and the soul.

Citizens of Concord in May, 1862, hearing that Henry Thoreau, the eccentric bachelor, had just died of consumption in his mother's house on Main Street, in his forty-fifth year, would have smiled cannily at the notion that after fifty years their townsman's literary works would be published in a sumptuous twenty-volume edition, and that critics in his own country and in Europe would rank him with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet that is precisely what has happened. Our literature has no more curious story than the evolution of this local crank into his rightful place of mastership. In his lifetime he printed only two books, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers"—which was even more completely neglected by the public than Emerson's "Nature"—and "Walden," now one of the classics, but only beginning to be talked about when its shy, proud author penned his last line and died with the words "moose" and "Indian" on his lips.

Thoreau, like all thinkers who reach below the surface of human life, means many different things to men of various temperaments. Collectors of human novelties, like Stevenson, rejoice in his uniqueness of flavor; critics, like Lowell, place him, not without impatient rigor. To some readers he is primarily a naturalist, an observer, of the White of Selborne school; to others an elemental man, a lover of the wild, a hermit of the woods. He has been called the poet-naturalist, to indicate that his powers of observation were accompanied, like Wordsworth's, by a gift of emotional interpretation of the meaning of phenomena. Lovers of literature celebrate his sheer force and penetration of phrase. But to the student of American thought Thoreau's prime value lies in the courage and consistency with which he endeavored to realize the gospel of Transcendentalism in his own inner life.

Lovers of racial traits like to remember that Thoreau's grandfather was an immigrant Frenchman from the island of Jersey, and that his grandmother was Scotch and Quaker. His father made lead pencils and ground plumbago in his own house in Concord. The mother was from New Hampshire. It was a high-minded family. All the four children taught school and were good talkers. Henry, born in 1817, was duly baptized by good Dr. Ripley of the Old Manse, studied Greek and Latin, and was graduated at Harvard in 1837, the year of Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address. Even in college the young man was a trifle difficult. "Cold and unimpressible," wrote a classmate. "The touch of his hand was moist and indifferent. He did not care for people." "An unfavorable opinion has been entertained of his disposition to exert himself," wrote President Quincy confidentially to Emerson in 1837, although the kindly President, a year later, in recommending Thoreau as a school-teacher, certified that "his rank was high as a scholar in all the branches and his morals and general conduct unexceptionable and exemplary."

Ten years passed. The young man gave up school-keeping, thinking it a loss of time. He learned pencil-making, surveying, and farm work, and found that by manual labor for six weeks in the year he could meet all the expenses of living. He haunted the woods and pastures, explored rivers and ponds, built the famous hut on Emerson's wood-lot with the famous axe borrowed from Alcott, was put in jail for refusal to pay his polltax, and, to sum up much in little, "signed off" from social obligations. "I, Henry D. Thoreau, have signed off, and do not hold myself responsible to your multifarious uncivil chaos named Civil Government." When his college class held its tenth reunion in 1847, and each man was asked to send to the secretary a record of achievement, Thoreau wrote: "My steadiest employment, if such it can be called, is to keep myself at the top of my condition and ready for whatever may turn up in heaven or on earth." There is the motto of Transcendentalism, stamped upon a single coin.

For "to be ready for whatever may turn up" is Thoreau's racier, homelier version of Emerson's "endless seeker"; and Thoreau, more easily than Emerson, could venture to stake everything upon the quest. The elder man had announced the programme, but by 1847 he was himself almost what Thoreau would call a "committed man," with family and household responsibilities, with a living to earn, and bound, like every professional writer and speaker, to have some measure of regard for his public. But Thoreau was ready to travel lightly and alone. If he should fail in the great adventure for spiritual perfection, it was his own affair. He had no intimates, no confidant save the multitudinous pages of his "Journal," from which—and here again he followed Emerson's example—his future books were to be compiled. Many of his most loyal admirers will admit that such a quest is bound, by the very conditions of the problem, to be futile. Hawthorne allegorized it in "Ethan Brand," and his quaint illustration of the folly of romantic expansion of the self apart from the common interests of human kind is the picture of a dog chasing its own tail. "It is time now that I begin to live," notes Thoreau in the "Journal," and he continued to say it in a hundred different ways until the end of all his journalizing, but he never quite captured the fugitive felicity. The haunting pathos of his own allegory has moved every reader of "Walden:" "I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail." Precisely what he meant it is now impossible to say, but surely he betrays a doubt in the ultimate efficacy of his own system of life. He bends doggedly to the trail, for Henry Thoreau is no quitter, but the trail leads nowhere, and in the latest volumes of the "Journals" he seems to realize that he has been pursuing a phantom. He dived fearlessly and deep into himself, but somehow he failed to grasp that pearl of great price which all the transcendental prophets assured him was to be had at the cost of diving.

This is not to say that this austere and strenuous athlete came up quite empty-handed. Far from it. The byproducts of his toil were enough to have enriched many lesser men, and they have given Thoreau a secure fame. From his boyhood he longed to make himself a writer, and an admirable writer he became. "For along time," he says in "Walden," "I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their reward." Like so many solitaries, he experienced the joy of intense, long-continued effort in composition, and he was artist enough to know that his pages, carefully assembled from his note books, had pungency, form, atmosphere. No man of his day, not even Lowell the "last of the bookmen," abandoned himself more unreservedly to the delight of reading. Thoreau was an accomplished scholar in the Greek and Roman classics, as his translations attest. He had some acquaintance with several modern languages, and at one time possessed the best collection of books on Oriental literature to be found in America. He was drenched in the English poetry of the seventeenth century. His critical essays in the "Dial," his letters and the bookish allusions throughout his writings, are evidence of rich harvesting in the records of the past. He left some three thousand manuscript pages of notes on the American Indians, whose history and character had fascinated him from boyhood. Even his antiquarian hobbies gave him durable satisfaction. Then, too, he had deep delight in his life-long studies in natural history, in his meticulous measurements of river currents, in his notes upon the annual flowering of plants and the migration of birds. The more thoroughly trained naturalists of our own day detect him now and again in error as to his birds and plants, just as specialists in Maine woodcraft discover that he made amusing, and for him unaccountable, blunders when he climbed Katahdin. But if he was not impeccable as a naturalist or woodsman, who has ever had more fun out of his enthusiasm than Thoreau, and who has ever stimulated as many men and women in the happy use of their eyes? He would have had slight patience with much of the sentimental nature study of our generation, and certainly an intellectual contempt for much that we read and write about the call of the wild; but no reader of his books can escape his infection for the freedom of the woods, for the stark and elemental in nature. Thoreau's passion for this aspect of life may have been selfish, wolflike, but it is still communicative.

Once, toward the close of his too brief life, Thoreau "signed on" again to an American ideal, and no man could have signed more nobly. It was the cause of Freedom, as represented by John Brown of Harper's Ferry. The French and Scotch blood in the furtive hermit suddenly grew hot. Instead of renouncing in disgust the "uncivil chaos called Civil Government," Thoreau challenged it to a fight. Indeed he had already thrown down the gauntlet in "Slavery in Massachusetts," which Garrison had published in the "Liberator" in 1854. And now the death upon the scaffold of the old fanatic of Ossawatomie changed Thoreau into a complete citizen, arguing the case and glorifying to his neighbors the dead hero. "It seems as if no man had ever died in America before; for in order to die you must first have lived.... I hear a good many pretend that they are going to die.... Nonsense! I'll defy them to do it. They haven't got life enough in them. They'll deliquesce like fungi, and keep a hundred eulogists mopping the spot where they left off. Only half a dozen or so have died since the world began." Such passages as this reveal a very different Thoreau from the Thoreau who is supposed to have spent his days in the company of swamp-blackbirds and woodchucks. He had, in fact, one of the highest qualifications for human society, an absolute honesty of mind. "We select granite," he says, "for the underpinning of our houses and barns; we build fences of stone; but we do not ourselves rest on an underpinning of granite truth, the lowest primitive rock. Our sills are rotten.... In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the postoffice. You may depend upon it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long time."

This hard, basic individualism was for Thoreau the foundation of all enduring social relations, and the dullest observer of twentieth century America can see that Thoreau's doctrine is needed as much as ever. His sharp-edged personality provokes curiosity and pricks the reader into dissent or emulation as the case may be, but its chief ethical value to our generation lies in the fact that here was a Transcendentalist who stressed, not the life of the senses, though he was well aware of their seductiveness, but the stubborn energy of the will.

The scope of the present book prevents more than a glimpse at the other members of the New England Transcendental group. They are a very mixed company, noble, whimsical, queer, impossible. "The good Alcott," wrote Carlyle, "with his long, lean face and figure, with his gray worn temples and mild radiant eyes; all bent on saving the world by a return to acorns and the golden age; he comes before one like a venerable Don Quixote, whom nobody can laugh at without loving." These words paint a whole company, as well as a single man. The good Alcott still awaits an adequate biographer. Connecticut Yankee, peddler in the South, school-teacher in Boston and elsewhere, he descended upon Concord, flitted to the queer community of Fruitlands, was starved back to Concord, inspired and bored the patient Emerson, talked endlessly, wrote ineffective books, and had at last his apotheosis in the Concord School of Philosophy, but was chiefly known for the twenty years before his death in 1888 as the father of the Louisa Alcott who wrote "Little Women." "A tedious archangel," was Emerson's verdict, and it is likely to stand.

Margaret Fuller, though sketched by Hawthorne, analyzed by Emerson, and painted at full length by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, is now a fading figure—a remarkable woman, no doubt, one of the first of American feminists, suggesting George Eliot in her physical unattractiveness, her clear brain, her touch of sensuousness. She was an early-ripe, over-crammed scholar in the classics and in modern European languages. She did loyal, unpaid work as the editor of the "Dial," which from 1840 to 1844 was the organ of Transcendentalism. She joined the community at Brook Farm, whose story has been so well told by Lindsay Swift. For a while she served as literary editor of the "New York Tribune" under Horace Greeley. Then she went abroad, touched Rousseau's manuscripts at Paris with trembling, adoring fingers, made a secret marriage in Italy with the young Marquis Ossoli, and perished by shipwreck, with her husband and child, off Fire Island in 1850.

Theodore Parker, like Alcott and "Margaret," an admirable Greek scholar, an idealist and reformer, still lives in Chadwick's biography, in Colonel Higginson's delightful essay, and in the memories of a few liberal Bostonians who remember his tremendous sermons on the platform of the old Music Hall. He was a Lexington farmer's son, with the temperament of a blacksmith, with enormous, restless energy, a good hater, a passionate lover of all excellent things save meekness. He died at fifty, worn out, in Italy.

But while these three figures were, after Emerson and Thoreau, the most representative of the group, the student of the Transcendental period will be equally interested in watching its influence upon many other types of young men: upon future journalists and publicists like George William Curtis, Charles A. Dana, and George Ripley; upon religionists like Orestes Brownson, Father Hecker, and James Freeman Clarke; and upon poets like Jones Very, Christopher. P. Cranch, and Ellery Channing. There was a sunny side of the whole movement, as T. W. Higginson and F. B. Sanborn, two of the latest survivors of the ferment, loved to emphasize in their talk and in their books; and it was shadowed also by tragedy and the pathos of unfulfilled desires. But as one looks back at it, in the perspective of three-quarters of a century, it seems chiefly something touchingly fine. For all these men and women tried to hitch their wagon to a star.


Moving in and out of the Transcendentalist circles, in that great generation preceding the Civil War, were a company of other men—romancers, poets, essayists, historians—who shared in the intellectual liberalism of the age, but who were more purely artists in prose and verse than they were seekers after the unattainable. Hawthorne, for example, sojourned at Concord and at Brook Farm with some of the most extreme types of transcendental extravagance. The movement interested him artistically and he utilized it in his romances, but personally he maintained an attitude of cool detachment from it. Longfellow was too much of an artist to lose his head over philosophical abstractions; Whittier, at his best, had a too genuine poetic instinct for the concrete; and Lowell and Holmes had the saving gift of humor. Cultivated Boston gentlemen like Prescott, Motley, and Parkman preferred to keep their feet on the solid earth and write admirable histories. So the mellow years went by. Most of the widely-read American books were being produced within twenty miles of the Boston State House. The slavery issue kept growling, far away, but it was only now and then, as in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that it was brought sharply home to the North. The "golden forties" were as truly golden for New England as for idle California. There was wealth, leisure, books, a glow of harvest-time in the air, though the spirit of the writers is the spirit of youth.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, our greatest writer of pure romance, was Puritan by inheritance and temperament, though not in doctrine or in sympathy. His literary affiliations were with the English and German Romanticists, and he possessed, for professional use, the ideas and vocabulary of his transcendental friends. Born in Salem in 1804, he was descended from Judge Hawthorne of Salem Witchcraft fame, and from a long line of sea-faring ancestors. He inherited a morbid solitariness, redeemed in some measure by a physical endowment of rare strength and beauty. He read Spenser, Rousseau, and the "Newgate Calendar," was graduated at Bowdoin, with Longfellow, in the class of 1825, and returned to Salem for thirteen brooding lonely years in which he tried to teach himself the art of story-writing. His earliest tales, like Irving's, are essays in which characters emerge; he is absorbed in finding a setting for a preconceived "moral"; he is in love with allegory and parable. His own words about his first collection of stories, "Twice-Told Tales," have often been quoted: "They have the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade." Yet they are for the most part exquisitely written. After a couple of years in the Boston Custom-House, and a residence at the socialistic community of Brook Farm, Hawthorne made the happiest of marriages to Sophia Peabody, and for nearly four years dwelt in the Old Manse at Concord. He described it in one of the ripest of his essays, the Preface to "Mosses from an Old Manse," his second collection of stories. After three years in the Custom-House at Salem, his dismissal in 1849 gave him leisure to produce his masterpiece, "The Scarlet Letter," published in 1850. He was now forty-six. In 1851, he published "The House of the Seven Gables," "The Wonder-Book," and "The Snow Image, and Other Tales." In 1852 came "The Blithedale Romance," a rich ironical story drawn from his Brook Farm experience. Four years in the American Consulate at Liverpool and three subsequent years of residence upon the Continent saw no literary harvest except carefully filled notebooks and the deeply imaginative moral romance, "The Marble Faun." Hawthorne returned home in 1860 and settled in the Wayside at Concord, busying himself with a new, and, as was destined, a never completed story about the elixir of immortality. But his vitality was ebbing, and in May, 1864, he passed away in his sleep. He rests under the pines in Sleepy Hollow, near the Alcotts and the Emersons.

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